Are you walking around with a copy of your passport? There are a few websites out there that will tell you it’s a perfectly safe alternative, especially if you copy the stamp page too.
I know a couple of gringos who would tell you they will never do that again. Let’s call them Mary and Joe so this story won’t follow them anywhere, but this actually happened this past week, in mid-January of 2016, in the interior of Panama.
Mary and Joe are well-travelled. In fact, they used to be in the Peace Corps. So you know they have been around the block in foreign countries. They decided to visit Panama, and the Azuero in particular, where they could see some old friends living in a small town on the Pacific.
The day before their return to the US, they decided to take a day trip to Chitre , one of the larger towns in the area – check out a museum or two, walk around in the old town, revisit some old haunts. When they got off the bus in Chitre, they walked across the terminal. A policeman stopped them and asked to see their passports.
Mary felt quite smug as she went directly to the pocket of her backpack where she stored the copy of her passport, while Joe struggled to find his. He finally just took everything out and located it that way.
Unfortunately, the policeman wanted to see their PASSPORTS, not copies of them. Both Mary and Joe were detained, and taken to the local station where they were made to wait an hour or so in a room reserved for such civil violations. Ultimately, their local friends rescued them – they were permitted to pay a fine of $15 each, with the proviso that they return WITH their passports the following day to prove they were who they said they were, and were legally in the country.
Had their friends, who included some citizens, not rescued them, they would have had to wait for help from the US Embassy, which was not notified of this. Had they not bothered with the last bit, I expect they would have been met at the airport and detained further.
Why did this happen? Because Panama is taking steps to crack down on illegal extranjeros (foreigners) – people who are not legitimately in the country. That would include semi-innocent tourists who have overstayed their visas, as well as people living in Panama on the wrong kind of visa – the “Perpetual Tourists” who live here and pay a visit to the border every six months.
To visit Panama for up to six months most people from “friendly nations” need only a valid passport with at least six months left on it, and a return airline ticket.
To live in Panama, you must either be a citizen or have the correct kind of visa. As the pensionado visa is available to expats of any age who meet the requirements, is is the most popular. The basic requirements are fairly simple: a clean criminal record, and a guaranteed, demonstrably provable income for life of at least $1000 per month. (As with everything, there are exceptions and special cases.)
Alas, some of the “Perpetual Tourists” here are folks without a clean criminal record, and would not be allowed a permanent visa. Since President Varela has issued a statement to the effect that such people are not welcome here, it’s no surprise that they continue playing border roulette. Some other “Perpetual Tourists” here either don’t meet the financial requirements or they just don’t have the immediate wherewithal to pay an attorney the $2500 or so needed to jump the legal hoops. These folks have my sympathy.
Others are just wearied by the thought of dealing with the expensive hassle of the process. If you find yourself in such company, now would probably be a good time to let go of your resistance and find a good Panamanian lawyer.
Meanwhile, if you are in Panama and do not have a cedula (the official Panamanian ID) indicating you are a legitimate resident, then carry your passport with you, not just a copy of it. And no, a copy with the stamp page won’t cut it either. Carry the real thing.
If you do happen to run into trouble, make sure you have your local US Embassy Warden’s phone number handy. He or she will help you with your situation. If you can’t raise them, try calling the Embassy direct. During the hours they don’t receive phone calls, call anyway. They provide a number you can use after hours in emergencies,
American Citizen Services
Phone: (507) 317-5000 or (507) 317-5030
Monday-Thursday: 10:30am – 12 noon and 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
Friday: 10:30am – 12:00 noon
Automated Information: 317-5030
You can google information about visas in Panama, but watch out for a malicious website that calls itself embassyofpanama.org. Apparently this website has been hacked.